Martin “Mr. Spike” Kuns

Martin “Mr. Spike” Kuns
Outdoor School is one of the few things in education that does what it says it’ll do. It takes kids out of the classroom into the out-of-doors and teaches them about the out-of-doors in the sciences.
— Martin Kuns

I started in the fall of 1966 and Outdoor School was in its infancy. It was like pioneering. I didn’t know it then, but when we went out on the grounds with the kids there was very little written material. We had to come up with things that kids would be interested in. We didn’t have any trouble doing that because as we would tell parents that wanted to know what Outdoor School was, “We’re going to take the kids, the students, out of the classroom. We’re going to take them into the out-of-doors and we’re going to teach them the things that are easily taught outdoors. We don’t have to open a book. We can look at what we’re going to study.” And it was magic. It actually changed my life. It changed the way I communicated because the word “ecology” wasn’t even in the dictionary hardly when we were going to school, and kids would grab on to whatever you’d give them because it was different. It wasn’t out of a book. It wasn’t in that four walls of a classroom. It was really easy to teach.

The more you worked at it the more you could see that kids wanted to learn. In the classroom it wasn’t as good. When I was in the classroom with kids it was difficult. It was like pushing a rope uphill, as we used to say. Outdoors, it was easy because the kids wanted to be out there and it didn’t matter if it was raining or if the wind was blowing or whatever the conditions. They were so excited that we were trying to give them this information. And the soil, water, plants, and animals areas balanced perfectly with ecology. By the end of the week the kids would have a real good idea of what we were trying to get across: how soils tied in with plants and how animals depended on plants. It was easy to teach them.

If there was one [negative] thing [it was] probably [that we] got so tired, because we didn’t quit. I mean we didn’t let up and the six-day program—starting on Sunday and ending on Friday—the program that we had was jam-packed. It was very regimented. In the book it told the kids exactly what they were going to do at what time of the day and they loved that. And at 9 o’clock at night, they would be going to bed and the lights would go out and they’d sleep until 6 the next morning. In those days we were getting them up with a bugle call—I don’t know, it was probably because we were very close to the people that were in the Second World War and the bugle call was easy to get kids use to. We used bugle calls for everything, just like they did in the Army.  I doubt anybody uses that anymore. But there was no uniforms and we weren’t marching them around.

And then table manners. A lot of the table manners now have gone by the wayside because people—I don’t know whether they just didn’t think [teaching table manners] worked or whether they didn’t think it was necessary—but kids loved it. We were told when we first started out that there were kids that came out to Outdoor School that had never sat down to a table to eat a family-style meal. They went to the stove and they dipped out of this pot on the stove and they ate it on a plate and they never sat down with the family. Now I didn’t believe that, but I know families today that don’t sit down at a family meal. [Outdoor School is] something that teaches you so many things that [aren’t really] part of the outdoor experience. It’s part of the social experience.

[The students] just loved it [and the program] just got stronger and stronger. I would’ve stayed with it all my life if it hadn’t have been for opportunities that came along that I thought were better opportunities. But I would’ve never been able to do them without Outdoor School.

Outdoor School is one of the few things in education that does what it says it’ll do. It takes kids out of the classroom into the out-of-doors and teaches them about the out-of-doors in the sciences. I was a senior at Oregon State when I met Gil [Warren “Mr. Gil” Gilfillan] and I actually dropped out of school to go to work for him. I had a lot of science background but I had no education—I mean teaching [training]. When I went out on the site for the first time and had to communicate with kids, I didn’t know what I was doing. But you have a different class [of students] every day and we were doing the same subject, and that first year I did Animal Life. So if you messed up on Monday you could fix it on Tuesday, and if you didn’t do it on Tuesday you did it on Wednesday. After a week or two, you got pretty good and your skills just improved because kids wanted to hear what you had to say. It just doesn’t happen anyplace else.

If they can get this referendum of whatever they’re doing and have Outdoor School for All it’d be the greatest thing in education that ever took place. It’s too bad that more people don’t understand or have the opportunity to watch kids learn out there.